Microsoft is planning to bring its internal tool for running hackathons to the public next year, starting by allowing a few select colleges to test drive it at their own events.
It's part of a plan by the company's Garage division to help other organizations get better at handling the administrative side of organizing marathon hack sessions like the three-day-long bonanza Microsoft held in July as part of its Oneweek employee team-building session. Known inside Microsoft as the "Hackathon interactive project site," it was built to help 13,000 employees and interns work on 1,700 projects during the Oneweek hackathon.
Now, Microsoft wants to make it available more widely to provide other hackathon organizers with the same tools it uses. The interactive project site gives hackathon participants several useful tools: They can search for projects to join, search for other people to work with, and share code from the projects they're working on. Once they're done, it serves as a showcase for projects that people have completed so that other participants can see what their peers have been up to.
Hackathons -- marathon sessions where groups of people work on projects that are usually technical in nature -- have become popular ways for people to get together and try out interesting concepts. At Microsoft, the Garage runs a number of hackathons every year around different themes, including its massive Oneweek session.
Those hackathons are important tools for Microsoft's internal development efforts. Project teams from the Oneweek hackathon will be meeting with engineering teams around the company who are interested in the technology they're working on so they can talk about potentially integrating the projects into Microsoft's products.
Garage Senior Director Jeff Ramos said Microsoft also expects to get 275 patents out of the Oneweek hackathon projects, which included a system for helping blind people navigate and a system to improve hydroponic lettuce growing on the company's campus.
Microsoft's tool was created to make it easy for people to get together and work on a project. Users can search for fellow hackers based on the skills those people have outlined in a personal profile. The site allows searches by both technical skills and non-technical skills, so hackers can find C# programmers, database engineers, graphic designers, marketers and everyone in between.
In addition to connecting hackers with projects, the tool also provides easy access to resources that teams need when they're preparing to work on a project. As you might expect, users can easily get to Microsoft development tools like its Visual Studio development software and Azure cloud services through the platform.
In the future, Ramos plans to include links to non-Microsoft technologies like GitHub, Python and other popular development languages and tools so the product isn't just parochially tied to the company's ecosystem.
"So the aim here is really just to make it brain-dead easy for someone to walk into a [hackathon], open their lid and start working on that hack project," he said.
The idea for the tool came about when Ramos attended a hackathon at the University of Washington. He said that when attendees arrived on the morning of the hackathon's first day, they attended a small fair to learn about the different projects they could work on, before having to listen for over an hour to someone describe how they could get set up with different tools. It echoed experiences he had heard about from other hackathon attendees who also had to spend time on administrative tasks before getting to work on their projects.
"It was like man, these guys are going to have to spend half a day just to get ready to start hacking," he said. "Wouldn't it be great if they could just come in and start writing code, and not have to worry about any of that stuff?"
The tool was only designed to be used inside Microsoft, but Ramos said people inside the company loved it so much they wanted to share it with others. Marketers and salespeople who participated in hackathons wanted to let people outside Microsoft have access to it.
"I think it happened by enough people consistently telling us, 'This is great, can I share it with my customer?'" he said.
Ramos wants to test the external version of Microsoft's hackathon tool with two or three handpicked colleges next year. Those schools can give Microsoft feedback about what worked and what they would like to see changed as Microsoft heads towards a final release, which is also slated for 2016.
Of course, getting this tool in front of college students also provides advantages for Microsoft. The Garage is actually a part of the company's developer tools group, and Ramos sees the tool as a way to get Microsoft products in front of people early in their careers who might not have had much exposure to things like Visual Studio.
"It's fascinating to me that when you talk to early-stage career people about Microsoft tools, there's an information gap," Ramos said.
In his experience, student developers are most familiar with free tools like GitHub. However, Microsoft has found that students tend to react favorably toward the company's tools once they get access to them. The company is already trying to create those encounters: It has a "Community" edition of Visual Studio 2015 that provides free access to a basic version of the company's development tools.
There's still plenty of ground to cover if the Garage is going to ship this tool to the public. Piloting it with colleges will be a key step towards it release, but Ramos said there's still work to be done before schools can get their hands on it, including handling issues related to privacy and drawing up license agreements.
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